The Lion, the Yurt, and the Xbox


Consider the grocery list, that carefully crafted catalog so often left behind on the kitchen counter or the passenger seat of the car. Or the Christmas list, which, if smudged sufficiently, dooms your poor nephew to the same pairs of socks he opened last year and the year before. Some psychologists argue that a technique called “survival processing” may soon make written lists obsolete. And though that seems unlikely, ideas from evolutionary psychology—once the black sheep of the psychology family, with its wild and suspiciously-difficult-to-falsify claims—have been getting a second listen of late.

James Nairne and Josefa Pandeirada, both at Purdue University, have long suspected that our memory is particularly attuned to things that can get us through the day alive. This doesn’t mean that we’re born with Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, venom lack prepackaged in memory, lest we encounter a coral snake someday. Rather, if we hear this aphorism, we’ll just be particularly likely to remember it later. (The rhyme also helps, but that’s another story.)

Nairne and Pandeirada tested their hypothesis by presenting college undergrads with lists of words relating to food, environmental disasters, four-footed animals, and types of dwellings—all things connected to human survival. For half of the words, participants were asked to imagine themselves stranded on foreign grasslands. Their task was to rate, on a scale from one to five, how important or relevant a word on the list—lion or corn or blizzard—would be for their survival. For the rest of the items, participants imagined themselves as guests at a foreign grassland resort where basic needs were met, so the words were rated purely in the context of pleasure: how important was jaguar or tsunami, say, in making their trip enjoyable?

Words were presented one at a time, for five seconds, and ratings had to be made before the next word appeared. Participants were given no indication that their memory of the words would be tested. But, when it was (after a short distractor task), the words studied in the context of survival were remembered more often than words studied in the context of pleasure.

The researchers took these results as evidence that survival processing enjoys a privileged place in memory. But to make a claim this strong, they need to demonstrate not simply that survival processing is a better memory strategy than “pleasure” processing, but that survival processing is the best strategy of all. So, these researchers and others have stacked survival processing against imagery (rating how easy it is to picture a word), self-reference (deciding whether a word—usually an adjective—describes oneself), generation (generating camel from “c_m_l” instead of reading it on a list), intentional learning (knowing in advance that memory will be tested), and even that gold standard of the cognitive psychology literature, pleasantness. This last memory technique—rating how pleasant a word strikes one as being—is popular among psychology instructors because its effectiveness (vs. a strategy such as deciding whether a word contains the letter e, which requires only processing superficial characteristics of a word) can be demonstrated during in-class experiments. This is indeed saying something about its tried-and-truedness: in-class experiments that don’t work 19 times out of 20 are quickly, shall we say, selected against. And yet, even pitted against pleasantness, the advantage for survival processing holds.

Does this mean there’s really something special about survival? Or is deciding on the importance of a yurt to someone stranded in the savannah simply more engaging than any other task psychologists can think of? And, deep down—this is the part that gets me—what would be the difference between these two explanations? Open questions, all of them. But until we know more, you might as well give survival processing a try. Interestingly—and for this your nephew will thank you—it even seems to work for words that are not particularly relevant to survival. Like Xbox.

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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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